Renowned South African Islamic scholar, Professor Farid Esack. Screenshot from youtube interview.
By Farid Esack, MEMO
February 28, 2017
Human rights activists and academics such as myself are increasingly being accused of antisemitism when we speak in support of the Palestinian struggle and the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Last year, organisers of my BDS speaking tour at French universities came under immense pressure to cancel events; the pro-Israel lobbyists failed. Moreover, for the past few weeks, I have faced a relentless onslaught in the German media without any right to reply. The accusations include the really galling claim that BDS South Africa, an organisation on whose Board I serve, has called for the killing of Jews.
Qur’an Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression, 1996
Locally, in an unprecedented attack by the Israeli ambassador and Embassy of Israel in South Africa, the governing ANC was accused of antisemitism for its support of the Palestinian people and discouraging of visits to Israel.
These accusations, some which are part of a multi-million dollar Israeli government-funded “hasbara” (propaganda) operation, are orchestrated to narrow the parameters of what is possible and even permissible to say in support of the Palestinians in their struggle for justice. The logic of this effort is quite simple; to make support for the Palestinians so controversial that it is silenced.
I do not for a moment believe that those pro-Israel lobbyists who make such deceitful claims of antisemitism actually take them seriously. Instead, this lobby recognises the usefulness of this tool as a means to quash dissenting voices. Unfortunately, like the infamous Nazi murderer and propagandist Joseph Goebbels, they believe that if you tell a lie loud enough and long enough, people will begin to believe it.
For example, neither I nor anyone on the staff or board of BDS SA has ever made any statement that could, even remotely, reasonably be interpreted as antsemitic. Throughout my life I have opposed all forms of racism consistently. By “racism” I mean both racial prejudice and the way that it is employed silently by those in power; the idea that any human character trait or quality – good or bad – can be attributed to a particular race or ethnic group and the tendency by those in power to exploit these ideas. In fact, the very idea of particular races with specific essences is a scientific absurdity; it is unadulterated nonsense.
Racism can take various forms, and to the extent that many Jews (and others) view themselves as a race, anti-Jewishness can also be described as racism. This form of racism has been a particularly deep-rooted and insidious evil for much of the history of European Christendom. Sadly, beneath the surface, anti-Jewishness is still alive and well in Europe. And here I am speaking of “Old Europe,” not the Europe of recent – mostly Muslim – immigrants. While in Muslim societies anti-Jewishness never reached the barbaric levels that it did in Europe, where it culminated in the systematic murder of approximately 6 million Jews, a number of Muslim societies were — and in many cases, are — also guilty of anti-Jewish discrimination.
As a Muslim, I have expressed my remorse and anger at this; I have condemned it regularly as an activist; and I have examined it as an academic. About ten years ago, I also spearheaded a campaign against Muslim antisemitism.
When people – any people – ascribe particular human characteristics or responsibilities as peculiar to themselves because of their “blood lines” or skin pigmentation, be they the Afrikaners of Apartheid South Africa, or the Jews who support the current political construct that is Israel as a divinely-chosen state, then these are also forms of racism. Assigning specific social roles or expectations to people based on the idea of blood lines is also racism. Examples of these are: “White people are created to care for black people”; “East Asians are a ‘model-minority’”; “All white people are devils”; “The Irish are thick”; or “Jews are the chosen people”.
The horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, as is the case with all other human disasters, were uniquely awful. However, to elevate one form of racism – in this case antisemitism – to a class of its own, with a special place in hell reserved for antisemites, is actually another manifestation of white privilege. It is also about Europe projecting its peculiar anxieties, and the consequences of its unique crimes against the Jewish people, on the whole world.
Those who are genuinely concerned about antisemitism as an extension of their opposition to all forms of racism, must guard against elevating this form of racism as a crime worse than others. This is particularly pertinent when, in their daily lives, Jews do not experience discrimination along the lines that, say, black people all over the world — including African-Americans — do. If you step out of your own little communal bubble for just a moment then you will notice that, currently in South Africa, levels of Islamophobia and, even more so, racism against Black African people are far higher than the level of antisemitism. In other places, particular Europe, it is even worse. All forms of racism matter and each must be evaluated for the effect it has on a people at a particular point in history.
Some Jews are desperately trying to make the current State of Israel synonymous with Jewish identity and to make this notion a rigid form of orthodoxy. For them, to criticise the State of Israel means to criticise all Jews. They have “synonymised” the two (Jews and the State). Many others, including some orthodox religious Jews and Jews who did/do not support Israel — such as the late Joe Slovo and Ruth First, Denis Goldberg and Ronnie Kasrils, and increasingly younger Jews — reject this “synonymisation”.
Making Jews and the State of Israel synonymous would be akin to Daesh saying that anyone who does not buy into its particular form of Islam is a heretic or an Islamophobe who hates Muslims. To buy into this logic (Judaism/Jews = The State of Israel; Islam/Muslims = Daesh) is to exclude the many Jews who do not agree with the State of Israel (either the idea of a Jewish state, that the Israeli State can do no wrong, or that its wrongs may not be criticised in public).
This is not to deny or to detract from the deep spiritual affinity that Jews have had throughout the ages with the “Holy Land”, especially the city of Jerusalem. My focus here is a political and ideological creation; the current and modern State of Israel (as opposed to the Biblical Land of Israel). In the same way, I would not wish to conflate Muslim attachment with the cities of Makkah and Madinah with the modern political and ideological creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Israel and political Zionism is a mechanism which some Jews in the world today see as the surest guarantee of the survival of the Jewish people. Some would argue that it is “the only way to survive.” Even if one accepts this false premise – and many do not – it is a peculiarly White European phenomenon to force another people — in this case the indigenous Palestinians — to pay a steep price in lives, dignity and land for that notion of “survival” of a foreign people. (And I use “foreign” as it is used in English, not in a non-scientific sense, such as people with religious convictions may view it. One may be a devout Catholic, but one is still a foreigner in the Vatican.)
there is nothing biblical or holy about apartheid and colonisation
Israeli supporters – many of whom have been and are atheists – are happy to conflate this political project with the Biblical idea of God’s promise to the Jewish people; the concept of the Promised Land. But there is nothing biblical or holy about apartheid and colonisation, as South Africans can attest; some White Afrikaners also claimed that this land, which today we all share, was promised to them and them only, at the expense of the indigenous peoples. There are many contestations regarding whose God promised what. We need to guard against God being reduced a real estate agent. When dealing with other communities, the only common language that we have – however flawed – is built upon international law, human rights and dialogical ethics, with the latter based on conversations between persons rather than conversations with one’s God.
BDS is an international, non-violent and civil society campaign to hold Israel accountable for its numerous human rights violations against the Palestinians; it has nothing to do with the beliefs undergirding the long and insidious record of European antisemitism. To equate it to Nazism’s “don’t buy from the Jews” campaign is at best naive and at worst downright deceitful. It is as absurd as comparing the Nazi boycott of Jewish goods in the forties (a wholly discriminatory, racist, unfair and unjust boycott) with Europe’s boycott of Apartheid South Africa during the seventies and eighties. It is also once again to elevate White people and their experience – however tragic – above all other tragedies.